BJP’s political sixer on 370: Why the ruling party is winning the political argument on revoking Kashmir’s special status

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The revoking of Article 370, which gave Kashmir special status, has unravelled what most thought was an untouchable status quo in our politics. It has also shown up a deep disconnect between left-liberal intellectual opinion, which is critical of the move, and the wider wellsprings of national thought cutting across ideologies.

It is not just about BJP’s majority in Lok Sabha. The fact that several regional parties ended up supporting its position on Article 370 is revealing. Equally telling is that Congress ended up publicly splitting down the middle on this issue.

The government’s lightning strike on Article 370 through the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill 2019 fulfils one of the BJP’s foundational demands that have animated it from its very inception. This was an older objective than even Ayodhya’s Ram temple which the party formally embraced as a political goal only in the 1980s, with the 1989 Palampur resolution. The “integration” of Kashmir, in contrast, was hard-coded from 1951 as a fundamental party objective right from the birth of its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh.

As early as June 1952, the Jan Sangh passed a political resolution which emphasised that India’s constitutional provisions on Kashmir were “of a temporary character”, laid out expectations for the kind of state it would eventually be when “Kashmir integrates with India”, flagged the distinct demands of Jammu and Ladakh and declared why the state constituent assembly’s decision for a separate flag and autonomy were “in clear violation of India’s sovereignty”.

During 1952-1967, the Jan Sangh passed as many as 24 political resolutions on Kashmir – making up almost one-third of all its total resolutions on wider issues of national unity. It has also been a permanent fixture on BJP poll manifestos. In fact, exactly a month before home minister Amit Shah stood up in Parliament with his proposals Organiser – the official RSS magazine – published a cover story on the 1950s Kashmir agitation of Jan Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee. The cover, on the occasion of his birth anniversary on July 6, was headlined “Live up to the Legacy”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have certainly delivered that legacy and an article of faith to the party faithful. But what of those with opposing opinions? Why has support for retaining Article 370 not garnered as much public and political support as they would expect?

The first objection is on the grounds of the inviolability of 370, since accession was predicated on promises made at the time. Yet, in practice, the initial arrangement has been altered over 40 times since 1954 through amendments made by presidential orders by successive central governments. These, over time, extended 94 of 97 entries in the Union List and 26 of 47 entries in the Concurrent List to the state. They made 260 of 395 articles of the Indian Constitution applicable to the state.

Most people don’t follow the nitty-gritty of Kashmir policy. Yet, they don’t see a problem with squaring the constitutional arrangement with what has been happening to a large extent in practice anyway. BJP’s move worked politically because it removes the veneer of idealistic rhetoric and unapologetically articulates underlying nationalistic and security principles that have long underpinned previous state actions by all governments anyway.

For much of middle India, this is similar to what happened during the debate on pseudo-secularism in the 1980s. The idealisms of state policy were often at odds with the hard-nosed realpolitik of governmental actions on the ground. So, the principles came to be seen as woolly or worse, hypocritical.

This is precisely why Congress found it so hard to present a cogent united argument in Parliament. Rahul Gandhi tweeted about winning hearts and minds, as opposed to territory. But neither he nor Sonia spoke in the debate and the younger guard openly tweeted statements that supported revoking 370. Worse, the positive public statement for the move by the former Maharaja’s son and the first Sadar-i-Riyasat of Kashmir, Karan Singh, himself a Congress stalwart, perfectly illustrated the party’s political dilemma.

Second, there may be fifty shades of grey in Kashmir, as Manish Tewari pointed out in Parliament. But in the end, for most people, it boils down to one simple question that Amit Shah repeatedly put to every naysayer. “First, you tell me what is your position on this?” It was a question that implicitly forced every listener to choose between a simple binary of national versus anti-national. Essentially, it was a booster version of the older “tukde-tukde” debate that polarised national opinion. Most of middle India sees the 370 debate from this prism. In a social media age, where opinion is often driven by WhatsApp forwards, every time a video circulates of stone pelting on security forces this opinion hardens, shrinking public support for counter-arguments.

Third, the rise of Wahhabi militancy in Kashmir since Burhan Wani’s death in 2016 was a turning point for national opinion outside of Kashmir. It reduced the political space for dissenting views, which would have been greater if it was simply seen as an argument for greater local political representation.

Fourth, Modi in his outreach to Kashmir has argued that integration would be an economic inflection point leading to greater investments and employment in Kashmir. How that plays out will depend a great deal on how the security situation turns in the coming days. There will also be legal challenges in court. But, like with most things about Kashmir, the underlying debate was really more about India and how it sees itself.

This is why, when forced to choose between limited political gains in the Valley for standing by 370 and the wider rightward shift of the national mood most politicians, including Congress young guns, found they had little option.

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